The Case for an Oilers Playoff Berth in 2013

Nugent-Hopkins Hall Eberle Schultz
(Ross Bonander/THW)

It’s fun to make predictions. But in the world of sports, it’s extremely easy to be wrong. There are so many variables in play that most predictions are rendered irrelevant. But fans love to see where hockey pundits rank their teams. They want reasons for hope if their team is highly favored, and they want something to get up in arms over if it’s not, that us against the world mentality. At the end of the day, a prediction is nothing more than a guess based on a team or players potential. Games are played on ice, not on paper. There’s no way of knowing, before a single game is played, which team will suffer injuries, which key players will go into slumps, or how the rest of the teams in the league will perform. But making predictions is fun. And with hockey set to get started in just under a week, predictions is the name of the game.

The last time the Edmonton Oilers made the playoffs was in 2006, when they came within a game of capturing the Stanley Cup. The fell in seven games to the Carolina Hurricanes, and after climbing to the top of the mountain, they haven’t been back since. The Oilers have toiled in the basement of the Western Conference, accumulating high draft picks and solid prospects, but not a whole lot else. Their goaltending hasn’t been stable since Dwayne Roloson was injured in the Stanley Cup final (the turning point in that series). The defense has been shaky at best. The special teams have struggled. But when building a franchise, the Oilers have certainly gone the traditional route: bottom out, stockpile draft picks and develop them. Luck, and just plain bad play, allowed them to have three consecutive years of first overall picks, and have slowly been putting together one heck of a lineup.

Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, Justin Schultz and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins put up a lot of points playing together in the AHL. Their powerplay was fantastic. But, as many are quick to point out, the AHL is not the NHL. Absolutely, but the core players of the Oilers have been playing together since the fall. They have developed chemistry, and will no doubt put up a ton of points. Adding Nail Yakupov to the mix will only make this forward group more potent. If the key players of this team can continue upon the season they started, the Oilers will be a difficult match-up for opposing teams. They have so many weapons, perhaps the biggest one being on the blueline.

Justin Schultz more than lived up to his billing during his time in the AHL. He can skate, he can score, he can control the play, he can make passes, he can move the puck up the ice. He is exactly what the Oilers need on their blueline. Doubters will question if he can translate that success into the NHL, but why not? He has all the tools to be an effective NHLer, and he’s already acclimated to the style of play. The lockout was a blessing in disguise for Schultz. There is every reason to believe that the core players of the Oilers will translate their dynamic play to the NHL, because the talent is there, and the drive is there. Many of the Oilers have been playing throughout the lockout and are already in midseason form. With the exception of Schultz and Yakupov, the key players on the Oilers have excelled in the NHL. They have some of the most talented personal in the league. But, exciting goals aside, you can’t forget that a playoff team has to have solid goaltending.

Over his NHL career, goaltender Devan Dubnyk has a goals against average of 2.85, and a save percentage of .910 over 101 games played. He had 20 wins last season in 47 games, and on last place team, no less. Dubnyk has yet to prove that he is a legitimate number one goaltender in the NHL, but his play has been on the rise. Dubnyk was outstanding in the Spengler Cup this year, leading Canada to the championship. Granted, the team in front of him was pretty good, but the competition he faced was pretty good in their own right. If nothing else, that experience gave Dubnyk a boatload of confidence. He outplayed Jonathan Bernier, seen by many as a top goaltending prospect, to earn the starting spot.

(Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE)
(Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE)

Edmonton’s success will live and die with it’s goaltending and defense. They probably won’t have a hard time scoring goals. It’s keeping pucks out of their own net that will be the challenge. But there is every reason to believe that Dubnyk’s stock will continue to rise so long as he gets consistent playing time. The Oilers just traded for defenseman Mark Fistric. He’s a stay at home type guy, isn’t the fleetest of foot, but he’s not prone to turnovers in his own zone, and that’s got to be a big selling point for the Oilers. Moving the puck out of their zone quickly will be crucial for Edmonton this season. Their defense is better than it was last season. They can only improve upon what was pretty dismal play over the past few years.

The Oilers have the key pieces in place to be a playoff contender. Whether it all comes together, whether the new coach can get things in order in such a short training camp, well that remains to be seen. But look around the Western Conference. The Oilers boast a lot of talent. And yes, talent means nothing unless it produces on the ice, but who’s to say it won’t. There are many counter-arguments that would suggest the Oilers won’t make the playoffs this season. But the plight of predictions is knowing how easily you can be wrong. The good news is, you can just as easily be right.